One of the most popular urban legends in American counterculture is that of the hemp conspiracy. It's a complex tangle of facts and fiction surrounding the long history of how and why marijuana became illegal in the United States. It's a tale of economics, robber barons, racism, and back-room conspiracies. What string of events could have led to this most versatile of materials, and among the safest of psychoactives, being vilified by the law and nearly nonexistent from industry?
Hemp, cannabis, marijuana are all the same thing. Just as there are different types of roses or tomatoes, there are different types of cannabis. All varieties produce tough hemp fiber that has myriad industrial uses, notably in paper, fabric, rope, even construction bricks. Some strains produce more or less hemp seed, which can be used in foods. But most notably, some strains produce a lot of THC (tetrahydrocannabinol), a psychoactive that triggers relaxation and produces changes in the senses. As an analgesic, THC has long been available by prescription in a synthetic form; but with all the different strains available, many habitual users prefer different varieties. But, we all know that basic stuff already. But what we don't all know is how exactly it came to be illegal.
The usual claim, most often repeated, is that four conspirators cooperated to kill the hemp industry with something called the Marihuana Tax Act (spelled with an H) of 1937. These conspirators are identified as newspaperman William Randolph Hearst, whom the legend describes as being heavily invested in the timber industry to support his papers; the DuPont family, whose chemical company had just invented nylon and was allegedly afraid of competition from hemp fiber; Andrew Mellon, Secretary of the Treasury and the nation's richest man, who had significant investments in DuPont; and Harry Anslinger, commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, who drafted the legislation. To protect their industrial interests, these parties are said to have conspired to make hemp illegal.
This conspiracy theory was always around, but it reached prominence beginning in 1985 with an outrageously popular self-published pamphlet called The Emperor Wears No Clothes, by pro-marijuana activist Jack Herer. Herer continued revising his book until his death in 2010, and it's available online at JackHerer.com. Except that he generally exaggerates the medicinal value of cannabis and industrial uses of hemp, his book is a fairly true history of cannabis in the United States. The biggest hole in the story Herer tells is that he largely glosses over the fact that hemp was virtually nonexistent in the country before his conspirators got around to conspiring against it — largely due to racism combined with the same evangelical forces that were behind the prohibition of alcohol.
The word marijuana was popularized by the forces who were out to ban it, well represented by Anslinger, a career crusader against the drug and alcohol trades. Before Anslinger took the helm of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics in 1930, marijuana was called Indian Hemp or Cannabis India. In a political spin move, Anslinger pointed to immigrant Mexicans and blacks as the prime users of illicit cannabis, and he began publicly referring to it as marijuana (the Mexican name) as a weasel word to associate it with low-status or criminal immigrants.
The conspiracy of Hearst, DuPont, and the others, as described by Herer, was greatly exaggerated. For one thing, by the time of the Marihuana Tax Act, hemp planting had managed to grow to an all-time high of only 14,000 total acres in the United States. Compared to hundreds of millions of acres of timber and about 10 million acres of cotton, hemp's market share and consequent threat it posed to wood and cotton was completely insignificant.
And it was only going to continue to get worse anyway. Many laws had been passed making cannabis illegal decades before the alleged conspiracy between Hearst, DuPont and the others. California had banned non-prescription cannabis in 1913 as part of a campaign against drugs that was largely anti-Chinese; New York City in 1914; Texas in 1915. Enforcement was almost entirely against Mexican and black communities.
The basic argument against Hearst's motivation to conspire against a cheaper alternative to paper is that, as a newspaper baron, he was a buyer of paper, not a manufacturer of it. Typically, buyers are delighted to have a cheaper alternative; or at a minimum, enjoy the reduced prices resulting from a competition-driven price war. If Hearst had been a savvy businessman, he would have been more likely to play both sides against the other in order to secure the best deal for himself. Reduced supplier competition would have created a seller's market, in which a buyer like Hearst would have suffered; increased supplier competition would have created a buyer's market in which major purchasers like Hearst would thrive.
However, the hemp conspiracy also has an answer for this. Hearst, it's said, also owned vast timber holdings and paper mills to fuel his insatiable appetite for more paper; hemp paper would have threatened his timber empire. So, where exactly was this timber empire so popularly described? Although the Internet alludes over and over again to Hearst's "vast timber holdings" and his "vast acreage" and the "Hearst Paper Manufacturing Division of Kimberly-Clark", no such empire existed.
Hearst did own one significant paper related business. In 1920 he purchased the Dexter Sulphite Pulp & Paper Company in New York state, which was a processing mill that bought wood from timber companies; there was no "vast acreage" owned. Hearst's idea was to produce paper for his newspapers. But it turned out not to be a good fit for the mill, so the company reverted to producing wrapping paper and wood fiber. He later sold the affair to lumbering giant Kimberly-Clark.
Surely Hearst must have owned timberlands somewhere? Hearst inherited two major pieces of land: the 270,000-acre San Simeon in California, later the site of his famous Hearst Castle; and the 900,000-acre Babicora Ranch in Mexico. Later he purchased the lease that was inherited by one of his cousins on the 50,000-acre Wheeler Ranch in Northern California. San Simeon and Wheeler Ranch were both retreats that were never commercially lumbered in Hearst's lifetime, although his trustees began lumbering on Wheeler Ranch after his death. Babicora, which Hearst later expanded to about 1.5 million acres, was a cattle and horse ranch.
William Randolph Hearst as a timber baron appears to be entirely fictional. Though paper suppliers were absolutely among the many industries in which he owned securities, Hearst was a buyer of paper, not a seller. It would have made no sense for him to shun a more profitable option, or to encourage the paper manufacturers in which he held interests not to expand. This popular myth about Hearst is also debunked by one of today's leading cannabis proponents, Dr. Dale Gierenger, head of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, in his paper The Origins of Cannabis Prohibition in California. He writes:
Herer has never produced an iota of evidence to substantiate this theory. To the contrary, according to Hearst's biographer, W.A. Swanberg, Hearst's newspaper empire was heavily dependent on imports of Canadian newsprint, rising prices of which left him seriously strapped for cash by 1939. It therefore seems that it would actually have been in Hearst's interest to promote cheap hemp paper substitutes, had that been a viable alternative.
Hearst's newspapers absolutely did sensationalize and exaggerate marijuana crimes and the dangers of the drug, but so did virtually all publications of the day. Anslinger's Federal Bureau of Narcotics pumped a constant stream of hysterical press releases to satiate the media, blaming murders on single reefer doses of the drug, and all sorts of crazy amplifications. A 1936 church film called Tell Your Children was massively promoted nationwide and remade by Hollywood as the 1938 Reefer Madness, a cautionary tale designed to show the horrific results of marijuana. By the time the Marihuana Tax Act was passed, the United States population was well primed to view cannabis as the deadly symbol of the criminal immigrant class.
But as we now know, the government's public opposition to hemp was short lived. Only a few years after the tax act, we were embroiled in World War II, and resources of every type quickly become precious. In 1989, a videotape was rediscovered showing a 1942 war propaganda film called Hemp for Victory. The war effort called upon farmers to produce hemp as much as possible to address the need for ropes and fabric that even our gargantuan cotton industry couldn't keep up with. There's a popular urban legend that says when George H. W. Bush was a young pilot who was shot down in the Pacific, his parachute was made of hemp fabric, his parachute lines were of hemp rope, his engine was lubricated with hemp oil, and when he was picked up by a ship, its ropes and firehoses were all of hemp. This is nearly all unverified, and highly improbable. There remained an almost total lack of cultivation in the United States, and most industrial hemp products of the day were made with hemp fiber imported from overseas. The war with Japan severely hampered those imports, so cotton had to do double duty and the call for renewed domestic hemp production was simply too little too late.
Products made from hemp oil and hemp fiber continued in industry after the war, though it was nearly all imported from Canada and other countries. Why didn't it take off? Two reasons. First, the anti-cannabis sentiment has continued. Second, industrial hemp is a fine product but it's simply not the miracle solution to every manufacturing need that many marijuana proponents, such as Herer, have made it out to be. It's good for coarse fiber but not for fine fiber, and it has so far never fulfilled its initial promise to successfully replace wood fiber in paper production. Hemp products do exist in industry, and they exist at a level pretty well established by supply and demand. No compelling reason exists to suppress hemp; but industry has also not found much reason to replace wood and cotton with it.
Cannabis hardly needed a conspiracy of Hearst and DuPont to put it out of business by the 1930s. It had already been doomed to extinction by racism, class warfare, and a complicit government and media to feed them. Though we often tend to look toward the rich and powerful to point the blame for society's missteps, oftentimes the true root of the problem is uncomfortably in our own back yards.